Students walk out for gun control; schools teach….compliance?…engagement?

Students at Yarmouth High School participate in a walkout to protest gun violence, Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Yarmouth, Maine. Leaders of the rally address the crowd from the back of a pick-up truck in front of the school. Yarmouth is one of the few sc

Yarmouth High School, Maine.

The final tallies are not in on participation in the National Student Walk Out for school safety, but thousands of kids across the country have gone outdoors for a lesson on civic engagement.

This demonstration was organized on the fly, in quick response to anger and frustration from the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The kids want adults to give them safe schools, but they’re not asking for gun turrets, higher fences, or armed teachers. They want sensible gun control.

Lots of adults, including teachers and school administrators, want the same thing. So, what do you do when students, often supported by their parents, friends–and a growing national movement–get ready to break the rules?

No surprise that school districts are responding in different ways.

Some districts have committed to maintain control, scheduling official memorials and prohibiting students from leaving campus. Milpitas  (California) Superintendant Cheryl Jordan announced that while she understood that students might want to express themselves, anyone who left the building would face “consequences.” Those consequences are thus far unspecified.

Two days of suspension are in store for anyone who walks out of classes at Sayreville (New Jersey) High School. (Note: The logic of keeping someone out of school for staying out of One student walks out after NJ high school threatens to suspend any protestersschool has always escaped me.) I’m sure some students, worried about grades, homework, getting into college, and staying out of trouble, will follow the rules.

But sophomore Rosa Rodriquez walked out, scoring interviews with local radio stations and getting national coverage for her act.  I hope that, if Sayreville follows through on its promised punishment, Rosa uses the time to explain why she thinks the American gun problem merits dramatic and risky action. She’s got a good case. (The ACLU is on her side.)

The threat of punishment makes politics more contentious and dramatic, and every kid in Sayreville High School will learn a harsh lesson about what’s most important to the adults who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Tolerating and controlling protest seems the more common school strategy. The Superintendent of Schools in Irvine (California) Unified School District announced that students were free to walk out and protest, sort of:

IUSD respects students’ First Amendment right, under federal and state law, to freedom of speech in the school environment. The March 14 event is entirely student-driven and voluntary – it is not sponsored by IUSD or our schools. In accordance with state law, we will not discipline students who choose to assemble, provided they adhere to District and school guidelines:

* All activities must be peaceful and respectful.

* At no time may students leave campus.

* Students must stay in the designated areas on campus, so as to not disrupt a safe and orderly educational environment for all students and school staff.

* Students may not exceed the identified break period and must return to class when instructed by school staff.

IUSD has received legal guidance from the Orange County Department of Education that school districts may provide appropriate time and place alternatives to ensure there will be no to minimal disruption to the instructional process.

Protest is easier when authorities endorse it, but they also take the heat out of the event.

PHOTO: Students across the U.S. walked out of classes on March 14, 2018, in a nationwide call for action against gun violence following the shooting deaths last month at a Fla. high school.

In Washington, DC, students turn their backs on the White House which has failed them

More than that, authorities can take the politics out of it. The student protesters are moved by the horrific shooting that cost 17 lives in Parkland, and by all the other shootings they’ve heard about in the years since Columbine in 1999–before most of today’s protesters were born.

But they want to do more than memorialize victims; they want to address the problem of gun violence, protecting themselves and others.

This is political, and it’s contentious–moreso in some communities than others.

The students who walk out of schools that support them will have to work a little harder to see the contention–and to stoke it.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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